March 8, 2014 11:00:00 PM
Kris Pickle always believed he was going to be a head coach.
The way Pickle sees it, every good football coach has a desire to be a head coach.
After getting a chance to experience his first taste as life as a head coach, Pickle will get a second chance to do it a little closer to home.
On Friday, the Lowndes County School Board approved the hiring of the former Morton High School football coach as the new football coach at New Hope High. Pickle replaces Shawn Gregory, who was non renewed last month as the school's coach.
"I was really impressed with the administration and thought it had a plan to get the program where it deserves to be and where it needs to be, which is competing for a district championship year in and year out," said Pickle, who accepted the job Monday night after discussing it with his wife. "The school has great support in the community and it is a great place to live."
Pickle was one of six finalists for the job who interviewed for the position Saturday. He led Morton High to a 6-5 record and a trip to the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 3A playoffs, where it lost to Southeast Lauderdale in the first round. Morton went 5-0 in Region 6 (Velma Jackson, Prentiss, St. Andrews Episcopal, McLaurin, and Collins) to win the title after only winning three games in 2012. Morton had a freshman quarterback, a freshman middle linebacker, and a freshman cornerback in a lineup that featured only 10 seniors.
Prior to taking his first job as a head football coach, Pickle spent three seasons as offensive coordinator at Northeast Jones High in Laurel, where he worked for head coach Keith Braddock. Pickle coached against Braddock when he was offensive coordinator at Aberdeen High and Braddock was defensive coordinator at Louisville High. Pickle helped Northeast Jones go 4-8, 9-3, and 7-5 in his three seasons.
Braddock said it was always a challenge for his Louisville defenses to stop Pickel's offenses at Aberdeen. He said the coaches talked and said they would enjoy working together if they ever had the opportunity. They realized that goal the past three years, as Pickle orchestrated a no-huddle spread attack for the past three seasons that helped reverse the fortunes of a program that was 1-9 the year before both men arrived.
"We got it turned around the second year and played for a division title," Braddock said. "He was instrumental in helping me get this thing turned around. He is a great offensive mind. He also has been a good head coach. He understands the whole picture and he is a team players. I think that is what has made him a successful head coach."
Braddock said Pickle was able to maximize Northeast Jones' potential on offense by getting the ball to the right skill position players at the right time. He said Pickle's spread attack made things difficult on defenses by stretching defenses sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone. He feels Pickle adapted well to the personnel in his time at Northeast Jones and made his scheme fit the talents of the players on the roster. He believes he will do the same thing at New Hope.
"He has obviously been able to (adapt) and do well, which is why he has continued to move up the ladder," Braddock said. "I think the one thing you have to do it you have to get to know your kids and spend time with them not just on the field. You have to be a year-round guy who goes to camp with them and gets up here to the school and spends time with them and understands their skill level.
"He is kind of a football junkie. He will hunt and fish on the side, but he is one of the guys who doesn't have 15 or 20 hobbies because he is a football junkie. When he was here, we would cut grass all day and go to lunch and it was sort of a way of life. When the kids would see him spend that much time and energy with them at school they understood the importance of it. They understood why coach is asking me to come up here three or four days a week because hey, he is here five days a week.
Pickle also played an integral role in helping Aberdeen advance to the 2009 Class 3A state title game, where it built an lead only to lose to Tylertown 34-20.
Pickle, 36, also spent two years as wide receivers/defensive backs coach at Nettleton. He graduated from Hatley High School in 1996 and went on to play football (wide receiver) for four years at Mississippi College. He credits coaches Dana Holgorsen, who was offensive coordinator at Mississippi College for two years and is now the head coach at West Virginia, and Brad Griffin for teaching him the basis of his offensive philosophy.
Pickle intends to bring a similar spread attack to New Hope. After being a finalist for the job in 2013, Pickle said he wasn't deterred by New Hope High Principal Matt Smith's decision not to renew Gregory. He said the job appealed to him a year ago and appealed to him again when it came open this year in part because it allows him and his family to be closer to home. Columbus is about 45 miles from Hatley, while Morton is 25 miles east of Brandon.
Pickle also said the job was appealing because he believes the program can be one of the best in Class 5A. He said former coach Michael Bradley, who stepped down following the 2012 season and recently accepted a job to be assistant athletic director and football coach at South Pontotoc High, proved New Hope can compete at the top of the classification by pushing the team to the Class 5A North State title game in 2009 and the semifinals in 2010. The program had losing seasons in 2011 and 2012. It went 4-7 in Gregory's only season.
"I want to get the program heading back in the right direction and competing where they should be competing," Pickle said. "The last three seasons were kind of average and bumping around .500. With that kind of support in that community and the type of school that New Hope is and they type of kids that are at New Hope, there is no reason to believe we can't compete with Oxford and West Point and folks like that."
Pickle said he will tailor his offense to his personnel. While he said he enjoys using a spread attack, he isn't going to go four or five wide and throw the ball 40-50 times if the Trojans don't have the weapons to do it. After the transfer of rising senior quarterback Brady Davis to Starkville, it is unknown who might be in the mix to take over that position in 2014. The good news is Pickle figures to be in place to run the program's spring practice. His hiring takes effect March 20. Smith said Pickle will start work as a physical education teacher at New Hope Elementary School in the place Gregory vacated. Gregory resigned his teaching position March 5.
Smith said it was crucial to have Pickle on board immediately to begin the transition. Assistant coach Bob Reeves had been serving as interim coach after Gregory was non renewed.
"It was a tough decision last year for all of the people on the interview committee," Smith said. "We were tickled he was still interested in the job, and he had an equally impressive interview. I think he brought some reassurance to some people on the staff that even though we have been through a rough time, he felt he could come in and make things good."
Smith said he was impressed with the ability of Pickle's offenses to score points. He said Pickle's ability to make the people who interviewed the candidates feel comfortable he could get the job done was another factor in the decision to hire him.
Pickle hopes to build that same trust with the players with a passionate and energetic style. He described himself as a "motivated coach" who works with "high energy and a lot of enthusiasm" and who is "extremely confident." He said he wanted all of the players to know that he will care about them on and off the football field and that he will back them.
Pickle also said he understands some of the New Hope players supported Gregory and wanted him to come back. He said he respects the feelings of those players and that he will work hard to build that same trust with them.
"It all goes back to being honest with the guys and letting them know your expectations up front and that you will be there for them and help them with anything they need," Pickle said. "If something comes up, you can't just say those things and not be there for them."
Pickle said transition is part of the coaching business and that he wasn't going to read into what people or players might say about Gregory or the reasons he wasn't renewed as football coach. Instead, he said he will work hard to set a new standard for the program and establish a work ethic that will help the Trojans realize his expectations.
"There are not many places in the state of Mississippi you can go and have a chance to be successful, to raise a family, and to send your kids to school there," Pickle said. "I think New Hope is a special place where all of those things can be accomplished and we can raise a family in the community and send our kids there and win a lot of football games, and that's what we're going to do."
Braddock said Pickle has the right demeanor to help get New Hope back to where it was when it had its most success under Bradley.
"He is middle aged and young enough to be able to relate to kids, to kids of all ages and races, and he has enough old-fashioned ways about him that when it is time to clamp down he can do that," Braddock said. "I would describe him as an energetic, players' type coach who is going to bring a lot of passion and energy."
One incentive is Pickle will get a chance to do that closer to home. Pickle's wife is from Nettleton, and most of his family still lives in the Amory/Hatley area, so he knows he will have plenty of support. His immediate goal is to restore stability to the program and to get the players to believe in his direction for the program.
"Those kids should know I am going to walk in there and be for them and be behind them and have their back with anything they need and we're going to work to get better every day," Pickle said. "From day one, our goal is to win a district championship, and we're going to continue to work toward that goal from the first day to the last day. This is an exciting day because the ceiling hasn't been tapped. There are a lot of good things in store for New Hope football. Those guys need to ready and to be excited because changes are coming and we are fixing to turn this thing back the way it is supposed to be.
"I am just looking forward to coming in and being a part of such a great community. My family is excited about it. I have been gone for four years from North Mississippi, but it seems like been 20 years. It is an exciting time to come back to come to a place with such support and, in my opinion, a chance to be one of the premier 5A programs in the North. I want to get this program to the point it is one of the elite places in the North.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.